Angela Rayner, the Labour deputy leader, would have people believe she is made in the mould of Barbara Castle, the radical Labour minister, now seen as one of the most significant women politicians of the 20th century. When Rayner was challenged on the BBC’s Today programme that she was more often viewed as a deputy leader like John Prescott, lacking any real power, she dismissed the comparison, replying: ‘I think I’m more of a Barbara Castle.’
This claim comes across as historically and politically illiterate, and a touch cringeworthy. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, Rayner has a way to go before she can be spoken of in the same breath as a political giant like Castle.
Since Rayner has made the comparison, it is only fair to look at the respective achievements of these two very different Labour figures. Castle, a genuine political freethinker, was one of the best known MPs of her day – in a parliament packed with political heavyweights on all sides – and for a time looked like she might end up as Britain’s first female prime minister.
Rayner struggles to stand out in a rather lacklustre shadow cabinet team, and not even her most diehard supporters would bet the mortgage on her becoming Labour leader, let alone prime minister, should Sir Keir Starmer fall under the proverbial bus.
Between 1964-70 and 1974-76, Castle led four major government departments. At transport, she introduced compulsory car seat belts, a national speed limit, and breathalyser tests. These measures were highly controversial and Castle often faced fierce and sometimes blatantly sexist opposition. She was undaunted.
As secretary of state for employment, Castle pushed through the Equal Pay Act, perhaps her greatest policy achievement and legacy.